Lydia Edwards, an East Boston Democrat and city councilor who’s championed affordable housing and free public transportation, declared victory Tuesday in a special primary for the state Senate that had become a turf war for votes.
Edwards, 41, defeated Anthony D’Ambrosio, a first-term Revere School Committee member, to take their party’s nomination in the First Suffolk and Middlesex race, according to unofficial results. He conceded shortly after polls closed.
With no Republican on Tuesday’s ballot, Edwards is almost certain to take the general election on Jan. 11. Should she win as expected, Edwards would become the only Black member of the Massachusetts Senate, and the first woman and person of color to represent a district that stretches from Cambridge and Beacon Hill through East Boston to Winthrop and Revere.
“I’m just overwhelmed by this,” Edwards told supporters in an emotional speech at Spinelli’s in East Boston, a neighborhood she said “put me on the map” in 2016. “East Boston is the reason why I’m a city councilor. East Boston is also why today I am the state senator from the First Suffolk and Middlesex!”
At one point, Edwards stopped and turned to her mother, shedding tears as they embraced. “I’m proud of who I am, of how I got here,” Edwards said. “I’m just so grateful for all of you.”
A thrice-elected city councilor, Edwards’ primary victory came in her second attempt at the seat. She ran in a seven-way primary in 2016, finishing fourth behind eventual winner Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat.
Boncore represented the district until September when he resigned to lead a powerful biotechnology trade group. His departure sparked Tuesday’s primary, the third special election for the seat since 2007.
The timing ensured the primary contest became marooned on the political calendar, scheduled 11 days before Christmas and just weeks after a Boston mayoral race that saw low turnout. The race’s spot in the holiday season was expected to drive down the number of ballots cast, putting a premium on the candidates’ ability to drum up attention in their respective corners of the district.
Edwards ultimately won by a roughly 20-point margin, winning 8,149 votes to D’Ambrosio’s 5,413, according to unofficial results. Edwards carried Winthrop, a 19,000-person community that had proved the difference in elevating Boncore into the seat nearly five years ago, and won nearly 77 percent of the 6,117 votes cast in Boston.
D’Ambrosio won handily in Revere, taking 75 percent of the vote there, according to unofficial results, after an array of the city’s elected officials had rallied behind him. But turnout in the city fell below his campaign’s expectations, proving to be the “biggest roadblock for us,” D’Ambrosio said.
“People are going to say she beat a 25-year-old kid who wasn’t very established,” D’Ambrosio said in an interview. “She had to contend with the people-powered machine of our own here [in Revere]. She was able to overcome it. I’m excited for her.”
An Air Force brat and Fordham University graduate turned public interest attorney by trade, Edwards pitched herself as the experienced candidate in the race who “learned how to lead as a progressive in a purple district.”
She spent years representing low-paid workers before winning election in 2017 to the City Council, where she became a consistent voice for creating more affordable housing in a city increasingly out of reach for low-income and middle- class families. This year, she helped push a binding referendum overwhelmingly approved by voters to overhaul the city’s budget process, giving the council more sway over Boston’s purse strings.
A raft of high-profile supporters came to her aid. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Representative Ayanna Pressley all endorsed Edwards. Mayor Michelle Wu, a longtime ally, publicly backed her, and helped rally volunteers on Saturday before they knocked doors on Beacon Hill.
“She put out big ideas, and has a track record to show what’s possible when government is really focused on the people,” Wu told reporters Tuesday. “She’s going to be the partner that we need in the state Senate.”
Edwards’ campaign stood in stark contrast to the one built by D’Ambrosio, who framed himself as a young political outsider — at 25, he would have been the youngest member in the chamber — and a Democrat willing to bat criticisms at the state’s, and his party’s, political leaders.
He needled the Legislature for moving too slowly in putting billions in federal COVID relief money to work, and criticized legislative leaders for keeping the State House closed to the public 20 months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Locally, D’Ambrosio leaned on his family’s own roots in the district. Many of his relatives are first- or second-generation immigrants, he said. His mother grew up in Winthrop. His father, a well-known lawyer in Revere’s political circles, immigrated to East Boston in the 1970′s, he served on the city’s School Committee before his son, and his firm currently provides outside counsel for the city.
The connections helped D’Ambrosio build deep wells of support within Revere. The current mayor, Brian Arrigo and his predecessor, Dan Rizzo, led a series of city elected officials to back his campaign, bringing together political factions that have often been at odds about the direction of one of Massachusetts’s fastest-growing communities.
But it ultimately didn’t prove to be enough.
If victorious in next month’s general election, Edwards would join a Senate body that is overwhelmingly white. Just two people of color currently serve in the 40-seat chamber, and Sonia Chang-Díaz, the Senate’s only woman of color, is not seeking reelection next year to pursue a gubernatorial bid.
The Senate also hasn’t had a Black member in nearly four years since Linda Dorcena Forry, then the highest-ranking elected Black official in Massachusetts, stepped down to take a private sector job.
Edwards said race wasn’t a routine topic with voters on the campaign trail in the district, which has become increasingly diverse but is still made up of or includes communities such as Winthrop and Cambridge where the majority of residents are white. (Under the state’s decennial redistricting process, the district will shed parts of Cambridge starting with the 2022 election, while snaking deeper into Boston.)
More often than not, Edwards said, she discussed her own lived experience compared to that of D’Ambrosio, who attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Yale University, and the University of Cambridge.
“What [voters] want is someone who fought for everything she has,” Edwards said in a Boston Globe interview this month. “That has meant more to them than the color of my skin: that I came from a single parent, that I know what it’s like to be on reduced lunch [in school]. I know what it’s like waiting for food donations with my mom in line. I know what it’s like to make minimum wage. That diversity — that class diversity — has mattered more than anything.”
The campaign veered into sharp-elbowed attacks at times. D’Ambrosio’s campaign this month flooded Winthrop with mailers criticizing Edwards’s record, particularly on housing.
In the end, Edwards said Tuesday that her campaign prevailed because it was committed to “staying positive.”
“That’s how we’re going to get things done,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, a supporter carried a chocolate frosted cake to where Edwards was addressing the crowd, which quickly broke into “Happy Birthday to You.”
Edwards turned 41 a day before her victory.
“Great birthday present,” she said.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the demographic makeup of the city of Revere. White residents make up less than 50 percent of Revere’s population, according to 2020 Census data.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.